The Minotaur was marvelous. It gleamed grandly in the winter sunlight, cutting through the freezing air with a precision achieved by only the most disciplined airbeasts. It buzzed with the activity of countless humans and beasties, all of them working together to achieve a complex rhthym of life. It traversed the entire Atlantic and more than half of the North American continent in all of four days, and was now cutting straight across the rocky mountains, making its way to Hawaii in record time. Every fixture had a purpose; every beastie had a place; every person had a job.
Every person, it seemed, except for Deryn. While the rest of the crew took care of all the important duties of an airship, she was forced to spend her precious days in the air with boffins and their snobby assistants. Even with her medal of honor and her trousers and her boy's name, she was barely allowed topside, much less on the rigging. Instead of the wind in her face and knots of rope in her hand, she observed bickering boffins in the gondola rooms all day. She couldn't do much worth doing.
It was dead boring.
The only thing that kept her sane was the company of Alek and Bovril. But half the time, they were actually talking to the boffins (all members of the Zoological society) who were there to assist in the mission, since Dr. Barlow herself was unable to accompany them. Apparently she had some other, pressing matters to attend to elsewhere. When Deryn asked why they weren't going with her, seeing as how they were her assisstants, she replied that they would be assissting her. "What you observe in Hawaii will be invaluable to me," Dr. Barlow had explained. "And not to worry: I am leaving you in very good hands. Dr. Goldman and Dr. Stanton are exeedingly reliable, and their assisstants are lovely young people. Your loris should be additional protection, even in his...ah...seemingly defective state." At that moment, Bovril had been practicing some martial arts moves he had seen in the streets, making a "Hi-yah!" sound everytime he moved. Dr. Barlow had grown used to the fact that the loris had become attatched to Deryn and Alek equally, but she still refused to refer to him by name.
Whether or not Dr. Barlow had been correct in her assumptions about Hawaii would have to wait until they arrived there and actually learned what their mission was. But it turned out that she had been right about one thing: the boffins could be counted on to be arguing about one theory or another at least ten times a day. But so far, their two assisstants had shown no loveliness, and Bovril had failed to protect Deryn and Alek from their unpleasantness.
Deryn traced a pattern in the grain of the wooden dining table, silently wishing for an attack on the airship, just for some excitement. Her head rested on her other arm, and she sighed disconsolately.
Alek prodded her resting arm with his fork. She looked up at him slowly.
"You okay?" he asked, his face bunched up with concern. She smiled at him. He looked so adorable when he was worried.
"I'm..." she faltered. I'm fine, she was about to say. But she clearly wasn't. And she wasn't about to lie to Alek. "I'm just barking tired of not doing anything, is all. I feel like...like..."
"Like a waste of hydrogen?" Alek supplied with a sympathtic smile.
Deryn nodded. "Exactly."
He looked out the window. She noticed that the snowy peaks passing below them looked eerily similar to the Alps where they had first met.
"That's how I always felt, back on the Leviathan," Alek began. The word sent a stab of pain through Deryn's chest. She had tried not to think about it, especially since she was back on an airship. But it always made its way back into her thoughts. Her eyes started to fill with tears as the memories rushed in, and she stubbornly held back their flow, her throat burning. Bovril came up and laid a furry paw on her hand.
"Future," reminded the beastie.
Alek looked at him oddly, and continued, "I felt like I could never do anything helpful, that I was always in the way of everyone." Then he looked straight at her, a twinkle in his eyes. "I wasn't like you: I didn't save people, I wasn't daring and smart, I didn't contribute anything to the ship."
"But you did, Alek," Deryn argued, sitting up, momentarily forgetting her anguish. "You saved me plenty of times, and you're as daring and smart as they come."
Alek smiled. "I realize the first part now. I'm very glad I saved you. And I'm very glad you saved me. If you wait this out, I promise we'll save eachother again, and you'll be happy for it."
Deryn took his hands in her own. "I already am, you daft prince." They gazed into eachothers eyes for a long moment. She felt the air around them get all crackly, and Bovril keened softly. They leaned towards eachother slowly.
Suddenly the door to the dining room swung open, and Deryn and Alek flew apart, nearly falling off their chairs. Bovril shot two feet straight into the air before landing back on the table with a thump. Dr. Goldman and Dr. Stanton strode in, not paying a whit of attention to the flustered assistants sitting before them.
"As I said before, Jacob, there is no premise whatsoever for the vitamin hypothesis of deficiency disease," Dr. Stanton was saying. She gestured wildly with her hands, her blonde hair falling out of her bun and her grey eyes glinting madly.
Dr. Goldman glared at her evenly as he took a plate from the food cart, his dark eyes searing holes into the other boffin's face. "There is indeed a premise, Gloria, and I would explain it to you if I thought you might understand it, unlike the multiple other times I attemped to," he said coldly. He ran his hand over his already-smooth black hair and began to stack food on his plate.
"Oh, so the fact that you are incapable of proving your theory is somehow my fault?" Dr. Stanton spluttered indignantly, grabbing her own plate.
They continued on like this as their respective assisstants walked in. First was a girl about 17, with curly golden hair that fell to her lower back in ringlets. Her eyes were an amber color that matched her hair almost perfectly, and her dresses always seemed to accentuate her womanly curves just right. She moved with inhuman grace, yet she had a certain hard edge to her that Deryn could never quite put her finger on. Perhaps it was the chilly glances she always shot at Deryn, or the way she always held her nose up at everyone that wasn't Dr. Stanton or Alek. She was quite the loyal puppy to her employer, and as for Alek...
Next to stride in was a young boy with shifting eyes and bony stature. His hair was a greasy brown mop that brushed his shoulders, and though he barely reached Deryn's elbow, he walked around like he owned the place.
Both assisstants made their way to Deryn and Alek's table, grinning like they were all old friends. The boy's crooked yellow teeth contrasted sharply with the girl's shining white ones.
"Hi Alek," the girl said sweetly. She sidled up to the former prince, ignoring Deryn completely.
"Good morning, Courtney," Alek replied stiffly. "Nathaniel," he acknowledged, nodding at the boy taking a seat at the far end of the table.
"It's Nate," the boy corrected with a growl. But he still seemed pleased that Alek had spoken to him.
Neither of the assisstants seemed to be aware of Deryn's existence.
"Hullooo, ninnies!" Deryn greeted jovially, waving her hands at each of them. Nate sneered, and Courtney pursed her lips at her.
"Hello Deryn," Courtney spat at her. "Still playing dress-up, I see."
A fresh stab of pain hit Deryn. That was the worst thing, she realized. They all knew her secret. Dr. Barlow had somehow found it neccesary to tell all four of these loathsome individuals that she was actually a girl, and that they had to keep it a secret under penalty of expulsion from the Society. That didn't mean they couldn't hold it against her.
"You're cheerful as ever, Goldilocks," Deryn replied cooly, taking a grape from a bowl in the center of the table and popping it into her mouth.
She saw Alek stifling a smile as Courtney scowled, turning back to him.
"So Alek, I was thinking..." the girl began, then leaned to whisper something in his ear, covering her words with a lean hand.
The tips of Aleks ears turned bright pink as she leaned away with a sultry look on her face. "Uh...I d-don't think so Courtney," he said, fumbling for words.
She pouted girlishly. "Why not?" she whined.
Deryn slipped beneath the table and covered her mouth with both hands, shaking with the force of her barely contained laughter. She didn't hear Alek's stuttering reply.
"Well," she finally heard Courtney say with a sigh, "tell me if you change your mind." Her footsteps began to move away from them. "Bye Alek! Come on, Nate."
A few minutes passed before Deryn emerged from below, wiping tears from her eyes. She took a few deep breaths.
Alek glared at her, rosiness spreading to his cheeks. "You wouldn't have been laughing if you heard what she said," he muttered.
Deryn stifled another bout of giggles. "I can guess," she said.
"Is that a normal activity for young women to participate in in England?" he asked with a grimace.
"If it is what I'm thinking..." Deryn paused. "Well I guess...I dunno. I never was one to hang about with normal lassies anyhow, now was I?"
They grinned at eachother. Thinking about her childhood reminded Deryn of something.
"Someone..." said Bovril thoughtfully, staring at her with his large eyes. Alek raised an eyebrow at this seemingly random phrase.
"Aye, beastie. It's high time I get more than a fleeting wave from my cousin."
With that, Deryn grabbed Alek's hand and led him out of the dining room.
"Jaspert! Get ur sodding bum-rag of a self down here before I set the fletchette bats on you!" the former midshipman called up to her brother, who was swinging on the rigging with his coxswain friends.
"Make me, little girl!" he called back. For a split second, she was terrified that he had revealed her to all of his friends, but then she saw them all guffawing. She grinned. That was just how Jaspert teased his younger cousin, the lanky Dylan Sharp.
"Come on," she yelled over her shoulder at Alek as she began to ascend the ropes.
"Come on whe-" Alek started. "Wait Dylan! Your knee-"
"It's fine, now get up here you ninny!"
The two made their way up the side of the great airbeast in record time, thanks to the weeks of training that had kept them in shape. By the time they reached Jaspert and his friends, Deryn's fingers ached slightly and her kneecap was buzzing, but she felt better than ever. Her joyful laugh echoed across the mountains.
"Glad you could join us Mr. Sharp," Jaspert said playfully. "Who's your friend?"
"Glad to be here, Mr. Sharp," Deryn countered. "This is my trusted ally and fellow assisstant, the former prince of Austria, Aleksandar of Hohenburg."
"Please, call me Alek," Alek said. He had reached the party the same time that Deyrn had, and he wasn't even breathing heavily. She frowned. When had he gotten so fast? Or rather, when had she gotten so slow?
Alek shook Jaspert's hand, both boys swinging, one arm each in the rigging.
"Jaspert, right?" Alek asked. Coxswain Sharp nodded. "I've heard a lot about you from Dylan," the former prince continued.
Jaspert cocked his head to one side slightly. "Aye? You two talk a lot?"
Alek's eyebrows furrowed. "Well, yes. We do work together."
"Of course," the coxswain said, looking pointedly at Deryn. We'll talk about this later, he seemed to silently say.
She narrowed her eyes at him and resisted the urge to stick her tongue out. Instead, she decided to change the subject. "So what have you been up to, Coxswain Sharp?" she inquired.
Jaspert frowned. "Well, as much as I would like to regale you with grand stories of my heroic deeds, nothing big has happened since I last saw you. Except for the war, that is, but I hear you saw firsthand how that messy bussiness started up. Meanwhile the Minotaur has been stuck in the homeland, with just a few scattered battles to entertain her." His eyes alighted on Deryn's Air Gallantry Cross, and he smirked. "Speaking of battles, why're you wearing Da's medal?"
"Get stuffed. You know very well it's my own."
"Alright, aye, but what I'm not aware of is the exact story behind its placement there." Jaspert poked her chest, flicking her nose when she looked down at his finger. His friends laughed. Even Alek chuckled. Deryn glared at all of them.
"I happen to have saved another middy from a burning Huxley, thank you very much." The laughter died out. Jaspert grinned at her.
"Tell me all about your adventures, Mr. Sharp," he invited.
Tune in for the next chapter, told from Alek's POV and including an appearance by Count Volger himself! Three cheers! *Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!*
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